Mike Mulligan Down the Block

CITY construction always begins silently. Tiny circles and indecipherable numbers are left on asphalt by invisible surveyors. Tracings of sewer lines and gas mains appear, in color-coded spray paint along sidewalks. Huge blocks of concrete are massed together, ancient pyramid-style, as test-pile data are collected and soils are sampled. Construction begins with a quiet reckoning of what exists, and with a wonderment at what this piece of earth will be asked to hold up. I always feel like I own the construction projects I know, the ones I walk by every day. My favorites are the ones they shoehorn into tight city blocks. I like the covered wooden sidewalks, festooned with hanging lights - the kind with a single bulb in a cage, a string of industrial-strength party lanterns. But the more they cover up, the more they try to make themselves invisible, the more I want to look inside, beyond the fence, over the barriers.

Pile drivers always sound angry, or maybe just bullheaded. They clang, fierce, insistent, endless. Perhaps they seem doubly angry, twice for each blow: Once when you see it, and again, a split second later, when you hear it. Pile drivers are the only things in a city that you get to see first and hear afterward.

When you live with a construction project, your sense of time is skewed. Life begins earlier, lunch is earlier, rush hour is earlier. You start to sense a different rhythm to the day. You learn new traffic patterns. You know cops waiting at the corner mean big loads coming that have to back and fill, back and fill, across two lanes of traffic, down into the hole. You count afternoon concrete mixers, lined up around the block, to see how ambitious a pour the contractor's planned for this day. You can't help but like it when there's one more mixer than the previous day's record.

What is our fascination with holes in the ground? Why is that phase so interesting to all of us, briefcase-carriers and bike-messengers alike? Are we remembering Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel? Is it the muck, or the machines? Is it both together, the wonderful realness of watching something grow up out of the ground? Or is it those peepholes, that make it seem like we're stealing a look backstage, at something we're not supposed to see?

The digging part lasts forever, sometimes, and you start to wonder if a building will ever actually get built. But once the structure starts to go up, it flies up. Before you know it, there's a beam on top, painted white, stenciled with the name of the local ironworkers' union, autographed by all, an evergreen on one end, an American flag on the other. Patriotism and ancient builder tradition live on.

Forget everything you ever knew about broken parking meters or friendly off-street spots. Never mind that there always seem to be more cars parked around a job site than there are workers inside. When there's a construction project in the neighborhood, you can't wake up early enough in the morning to get a decent place to park. You may only claim your favorite spot after four in the afternoon.

When winter comes, the bones of a building-in-progress get wrapped in plastic, to hold in the heat. Everything gets hidden for months and months. All you can see is mud. Trucks keep coming and going, and they drag more and more mud out, over the curb and onto the street. Workers, when you see them, wear big boots, like firemen. Regular workboots get sucked in by the mud.

Never stand in line at a fast-food franchise behind a guy in a hard hat with a piece of plywood in his hand. He's the new kid, the super's son, perhaps, and he's been sent out for coffee for an entire crew. That piece of plywood is his order list, written in grease pencil. He has lots of sugars and creams to keep straight. He is guaranteed to take longer than an entire little league team.

Bit by bit, the building is revealed from behind the plastic, all fancied up with glass and brick, or stone, or concrete panels made to look like brick or stone. Finally, the building starts to resemble the picture on the jobsite sign, the one they erected before the hole was dug. Now all the action is hidden behind real walls.

Bd-zeet, bd-zeet, bd-zeet: that's the sound of the drywall gun. It's a funny sort of echo from the pile driver; happier, closer to home. Hear that and know lots of things are almost finished - rough plumbing, wiring, behind-the-walls stuff. Hear bd-zeet and know that the things left to do are the things we all know about - switchplates, showerheads, baseboards, paint. Hear bd-zeet and know that the guts are in place, it's time to seal everything up.

Almost-finished buildings have a sleepy look, forbidding to my sidewalk eyes during that last phase, when everything goes on inside. But there's one more swoop of activity outside, at the last possible minute. In a final flurry, paving stones are set and sod is rolled out and windows are cleaned and containers of geraniums appear. Everything gets watered down. The mud finally disappears. Ribbons are cut. Then the quiet comes back.

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